how not to direct a play


I will not put in a disclaimer of the above statement, despite the recent hectoring-in-the-form-of-a-question – in an FB page that was kind enough to link to showing up. These are opinions, folks. They’re my opinions. If you respect me, either by knowing me or my work, great, that still doesn’t mean that I mean for you to swallow my ideas wholesale. Life is a place for discourse. We can disagree and remain friends, even beloved friends, but please have your own opinions, and back them up with experience and logic.

Digression #1 – and I haven’t even gotten to the topic of the column, apologies for that, but this is important in the final fabric of the thing so I’ll proceed. In a recent playwrights’ group, a colleague and I disagreed vociferously, and we may never come ’round to each others’ point of view. When we each restated our sides, more and more strongly, other colleagues became a bit alarmed: those very nice, very reasonable men would have defused the situation with a joke and a laugh. We didn’t. We agreed to disagree, but frankly enjoyed the verbal joust.

Here’s another – some years ago, I’d hired a baritone to sing in an opera tour, and on a drive somewhere, we argued about something-or-other in Sweeney Todd. My partner-at-the-time, the driver, became increasingly uncomfortable, and after we’d dropped the baritone where he was staying, my partner remarked that he’d almost pulled the car over a couple of times, fearing that the baritone and I would come to blows.

What has happened to passionate discourse? How did we “nice” up at such a level? This has to be one reason why so much theater is boring! Don’t blame me, it was in The Guardian.

Okay. How not to direct a play.

Do not jump into the play without shaking the audience’s metaphorical hand. Say you have a fast-paced, wordy comedy. Say you-the-director have a clear grasp of the world of the play, and dive in headlong. Say your audience hears sounds that are unusual to them, perhaps out of context for a “normal” world, but no one on stage responds to the sounds in a way that shows the audience what those sounds actually represent, or the implications of that representation.

Do not assume that the audience will just get the play. Say a combat helmet is called for in the script, but all you could find was a hard hat – they do the same thing, right, protect someone’s head? – but they *don’t* do the same thing from an audience’s perspective. One says “construction site.” One says “war.”

Do not focus on actors’ emotions. Emotions are a by-product, often an obstacle, not part of the storytelling. Yes, they’re how we catch an audience, sometimes, but remember the old adage, “If you cry, they won’t”? It’s absolutely true. If you’ve directed for emotion – by which I mean, ignored subtext and character-action – maybe they (the audience, the critics) will laugh in the moment, or talk about how good the actors were, later, but they’ll still be in the observer’s seat. they won’t know where they are, or why.

Don’t give every single line of dialogue from every single character the same importance. Ever since MTV, really since Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, we’re used to being blasted mercilessly, but a director’s job is to help the audience understand what’s important and what’s not, to pick a path through the wilderness.

If your characters’ speech overlaps, do not have them just shout all at the same time, show a little craft. Choose who gets heard and when. Your playwright has likely honed those moments as part of the storytelling so do your homework, please, and figure out which thread the audience needs to follow at any given moment. And help them follow it. If you don’t know how to do this, listen to classical music, which contains very good lessons of what’s in the background and what’s meant to be in the foreground of our hearing.

If your play is rife with metaphor, don’t cast a truly fine actor who doesn’t imbue that metaphor (but can really, really emote). For an example, let’s take the Pulitzer-Prize-shortlist play Sons of the Prophet. It was shortlisted because it’s a big, fat metaphor. The central family is Lebanon. The father – old Lebanon – just died of a heart attack. The uncle – Lebanon’s past – is the old, dying, intelligentsia/artsy/cosmopolitan regime pissing all over everything. The elder son – the present – is crumbling and the younger son – the future – is turning toward Fundamentalism. The rich woman is every ballbusting country that overran Lebanon with rapacious design. The journalist – with whom the elder son chooses to have sex – is, well, the media, with whom Lebanese “got into bed” as a lesser evil. So, when you have a metaphorical play, DO NOT direct the emotions. Direct the play. It will likely not work anyway if the construction is jerry-rigged six ways from Sunday – which is a metaphor for Lebanon’s pastiche history as well – but at least your audience will know when it’s over.

Following on from the previous, do not – I’ve said this before to playwrights, and will likely say it again – assume that your audience is there to bear witness. They’re likely to sit quietly and do just that because they’re used to doing that in most of their lives – TV, movies, their smartphones – but theater is where we share air. Where passion is meant to surprise us on a visceral level. Here’s the trick, here’s the secret exploded: you don’t get viscera by directing viscera. You get viscera by directing the logical structure of the play.

Don’t think that directing is easy, you just cast well and do some staging. DIRECTING IS THE TELLING OF THE STORY FROM THE BLUEPRINT OF THE SCRIPT IN COLLABORATION WITH THE DESIGNERS AND ACTORS AND CREW. Directing means not only understanding every beat, every line, every character, relationship, and situation, every nuance and metaphor and poetic turn-of-phrase; but also sharing the play in a way that will surprise, move, delight, fill-in-the-results-here an audience. Which doesn’t happen when you’re “on the words” or worse yet, “on the emotions.”

And no, I’m not saying, eviscerate emotions, for those who will draw that inference as a way of starting a specious argument.  I’m saying, emotions are a result, not what you direct.

Directing is akin to sleight-of-hand, to making the lady in the box get cut into pieces and disappear, only to reappear miraculously whole, yet altered. That synthesis – the blueprint-script, the artist-collaborators, the audience-participants – is the Director’s responsibility. We go to the theater for something larger than entertainment, larger than edification. Bringing everyone on the Director’s journey of understanding, that’s the Director’s job.

How *to* direct a play?

I wouldn’t even begin to presume. But.  I hope I’ve at least defined some portion of the argument.




2 thoughts on “how not to direct a play

  1. While emotions can be obstacles (and most everything/anything can be), I disagree that actors can’t be emotional. Actors’ beats are usually actions, but sometimes emotional reactions can be used as well. The script may say “I hate you,” but it’s the actor’s emoting of the line that tells the audience whether the words are said in anger or in jest and relay the subtext of the scene.

    Should emotions be the focus of story? No. But I don’t believe that “directing for emotion” will result in an audience losing any understanding of other elements of the story. Could you explain why you argue that directing for emotion would result in the audience not knowing “where they are, or why.”?

  2. Apologies for my lack of clarity. I’m not saying that plays shouldn’t have emotion, I’m saying that if a director directs *for* emotion, they’re likely not serving the play or the audience.

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